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Story Publication logo September 17, 2020

Peatland Fires Are 'Patterned and Massive'


Fire tower guarding over peatland. Image by Slamet Mulyadi/Shutterstock. Indonesia, 2019.

The fires that destroyed 1.53 million hectares of Indonesia’s forests and land in 2019 were...

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Palembang, South Sumatra—May 30, 2019. A watch tower stands guard against forest fire in South Sumatran peatland. Image by Slamet Mulyadi / Shutterstock. Indonesia, 2019.
Palembang, South Sumatra—May 30, 2019. A watch tower stands guard against forest fire in South Sumatran peatland. Image by Slamet Mulyadi / Shutterstock. Indonesia, 2019.

The next two months will be crucial for Nazir Foead. The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency’s (BMPKG) prediction that a drought will arrive in September has forced the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) chief to continue traveling for work outside Java, beginning July. “I have had to go to the field to ensure that the peatland rewetting and economic assistance programs continue,” Nazir told Tempo journalist, Agoeng Wijaya, via telephone on Thursday, September 10.

Nazir and his team must indeed stay alert during these months, when land and forest fires are prone to happen. Over the past five years, peatlands have been most vulnerable to fires and the BRG has often been the target of criticism.

The 2019 fires continued the 20-year trend, always growing every three-five years. Why does this happen?

When considering the trend, that’s true, it depends on the climate. Last year, the dry season was very long and very dry. 2015 was the worst. It’s not that I’m hiding behind climate. Firstly, we’re always connected to natural factors. But, secondly, we still have plenty of peatlands that are already cleared and dry. Of Indonesia’s 14 million hectares of peatland, already more than half have been cleared. Some are managed well, some are not.

What do you mean not properly managed?

There are still irresponsible practices. The massive burning doesn’t only include farmers who clear one or two hectares of land. There are still those who are clearing tens of hectares of land. Not sporadically, this is patterned and massive. So, there is the third factor, law enforcement. If an individual is found to have caused fire, deliberately, and with ill intent, (they) must be legally processed, investigated up to the financer. Usually a financer with financial power and political connections is the one with the ability to cause massive fires.

Does the BRG monitor all of the 14 million hectares of peatland?

The BRG is given authority over 2 million hectares by the President. After mapping peatlands that caught fire in 2015 and are vulnerable to future fires, the restoration target was increased to 2.6 million hectares, made up of 1.7 hectares of concession peatland areas and 900,000 hectares of non-concession land. BRG’s 900,000-hectare area is non-concession land. We’ve already deliberated on 800,000 hectares, so the rest must be completed by the end of 2020.

What about the 1.7 million hectares of concession peatlands?

We have a Memorandum of Understanding with the plantation directorate-general, to perform technical guidance for deliberations on 555,000 hectares of oil palm concessions on peatland with cultivation rights, and deliberations have been performed for 442,000 hectares, or around 78 percent. The rest, 1.2 million hectares on industrial forest plantation (HTI), are directly under the environment and forestry ministry.

Our findings suggest that Bumi Mekar Hijau, a HTI company, is building canals on a massive scale, cutting through a peatland hydrological area (KHG) near the Way Mesuji River, Lampung.

We’re focused on non-concession peatlands and oil palm concessions. HTI is under the environment ministry.

We found that Kumai Sentosa may be cutting through the Buluh Besar River KHG before the great fires last year.

I’m looking at the list of oil palm companies we’re giving technical guidance. The name isn’t on the list. Companies that we give technical guidance already have cultivation rights (HGU), clean and clear. But according to government regulations and the latest peatland regulations, no one is allowed to build canals to dry peatlands.

Aren’t peatlands one complete ecosystem? Why is the authority to monitor them divided among institutions?

The environment and forestry ministry is the one with the authority to provide guidance. We only facilitate. Our task is to monitor non-concession peatlands.

BRG’s term will soon end. Is an extension necessary?

We’re waiting for a new regulation. We’ll just wait. But that isn’t the only key. Coordination with various authorities and monitoring is needed. So that the mistake doesn’t drag on. The President himself has ordered management per ecosystem, per KHG. The process is ongoing. Our target is to have the mapping of 106 KHGs completed by the end of this year. This can be a permanent solution.